Gordon Sinclair Jr. is angry. “I’ve taken so much crap,” he says, “and I’m still taking it.”
The author of Cowboys and Indians: The Shooting of J.J. Harper was the only Winnipeg journalist to undertake an investigation of the Harper case. Harper, a Manitoba Aboriginal leader, was killed in a struggle with police officer Robert Cross on March 9, 1988. His death was the subject of three judicial inquiries and sparked the creation of the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. Neither of the city’s two major newspapers was interested in pursuing the matter, so Sinclair used his Winnipeg Free Press column to examine the police coverup of Harper’s death. He nearly lost his job in the process.
After the suicide of one of the police officers involved in the case, the Free Press received angry calls and letters from readers who thought Sinclair’s probe was behind the officer’s death. One caller asked, “Why keep that Indian-lover on staff?” Another reader wrote, “Sinclair’s been on the side of the Natives since day one.” And one reader said, “No cop should have to die for a Native.”
“Winnipeg has always been a racist, class-divided city in a very marked way,” says Sinclair, who grew up there and still calls it home. “This is Canada, but it’s more like the Deep South of the United States. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything as naked as the racism beneath this story.”
Uncovering that racism has provided Sinclair with an education in police tactics. “I’m living in fear of the police and their dirty tricks,” Sinclair admits over lunch in a Toronto greasy spoon. “I think my calls are being monitored, and I know certain cops hate my guts. There was evidence that someone had been in my home computer while I was away, and in the middle of the night. I’m not just worried for myself. I’m worried for my family.”
So how did a nice white guy like Sinclair get involved in a case like this? “I used to play cowboys and Indians with my brother when we were kids,” Sinclair remembers. “One time, I shot him, and I said, ‘That’s it, you’re dead.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not!’ But he was. And we knew it – because he was the Indian.
“I wrote this book because of the oppression Native people have been subjected to throughout Canadian history; because of the way the police treat them, and have always treated them.”